Historian Henry Louis Gates Jr., What It Means To Be 'Black In Latin America' Historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. looks at the cultural legacy of African slaves brought to Latin America.
NPR logo

What It Means To Be 'Black In Latin America'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/138601410/138714954" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
What It Means To Be 'Black In Latin America'

What It Means To Be 'Black In Latin America'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/138601410/138714954" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Henry Louis Gates, is one of the most prominent scholars of African-American history. Even so, he says he sometimes has to remind himself that race is not just a black thing. It signifies a lot of different kinds of people in different places. And African-Americans in this country don't have a patent on the term or on the social conditions that have resulted from slavery and its long aftermath.

Those are among the reasons he wrote his new book "Black in Latin America," about what it means to be black in places south of our border. The book is a companion to a PBS series he did last spring, for which he traveled to six countries: Brazil, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Mexico and Peru

Gates directs the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard. He's hosted 11 PBS specials, including ones that traced people's genealogy through their DNA, exploring how race and ethnicity are more complex than we think.

Gates is also famous for his dispute with a police officer that led to the Obama beer summit.

Henry Louis Gates, welcome back to FRESH AIR. There is so much in your book that I did not know. I'm really - I was really, like, so uninformed about slavery south of our border and the ongoing racial implications of that. Why did countries south of our border have so many more slaves than the U.S.?

Mr. HENRY LOUIS GATES JR. (Director, W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research; Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Harvard University; Author, "Black in Latin America"): Well, Terry, between 1502 and 1866, 12.5 million Africans got on the ships from Africa sailing to the new world as slaves. 11.2 million disembarked in the new world, and of that 11.2 million, how many came to the United States: 450,000. 388,000 came directly, and another 70,000 or so stopped briefly in the Caribbean and then came to the United States. All the rest went to the Caribbean and Latin America.

Brazil got 4.8 million slaves alone. Now, when I was growing up, I don't know about you, but essentially I thought to talk about the slave trade meant to talk about the experiences of our ancestors here in the United States. But it turns out that the real quote-unquote African-American experience, judging by numbers alone, unfolded south of our borders, south, as it were, of Key West and Texas.

And that world is the world that I wanted to unveil or explicate. Now, there are many scholars who have been working in this field for a long time, but the average American, and I'd say even the average academic and the average journalist, has no idea of the huge number of black people who landed south of the United States over the course of the slave trade.

GROSS: Now, you write the real African-American experience took place in Latin America and in the Caribbean, but one of the things you found in common in just about all of the countries you visited is that the descendants of Africans don't identify as African-American.

Mr. GATES: No, America is very peculiar, because of the history of slavery and racism in that we have the law of hypodescent. And you know what that is, the one drop rule. If you have one drop of black ancestry, then you were black historically. And you know what, Terry? That's even true today. That was recently affirmed by Supreme Court decision in the mid-1980s.

So if that rule applied throughout Latin America, my God, there would be several hundred million people that we would define as black. Officially, there are about 120 million people of African descent in Latin America, but using the law of hypodescent, there would be many hundred million more. So that in Brazil, whereas we have black and white, and in the old days we used to have black, white and mulatto, say, in the 1890 census, in Brazil today they have 134 categories of blackness.

It's like octoroon and quadroon are on steroids in Brazil. And I list these 134 categories as an appendix in the book, along with different color categories in each of the countries in which I filmed and which I've written about in this new book.

GROSS: And what is the point of having so many color categories? What is it supposed to indicate?

Mr. GATES: Well, you can look at it two ways. For most African-Americans, the first time you go to Brazil, or the first time you go to Haiti or Cuba, and you encounter all these categories, you think this is a way of fleeing blackness we would say in the barbershop, this is a way of not wanting to be black.

Well, I'm not black. I'm a Moreno. Or I'm not black, I'm a Cabolo, or one of the many other hundred words that people use to describe gradation of blackness, hair texture, facial features.

But on the other hand, you could say that these societies have refused to be locked in this ridiculous binary opposition between black and white as we are here in America, and they've socially constructed race or ethnicity in a more subtle way than we could ever imagine.

So it's - you could take your pick. The history of each of these countries involves, first of all, a tremendous influx of slaves, of blackness, followed by, Terry, a period of whitening. In Brazil it's called Branqueamento.

GROSS: That's one of the things I found really amazing, that there was actually policies in some of these countries to bring in more Europeans, and the subtext was to whiten the complexion of the country.

Mr. GATES: Yeah, well, let's take Brazil. As I said, Brazil got 4.8 million Africans arriving in the slave trade. And remember, Brazil did not abolish slavery until 1888, which is very, very recently. Cuba, 1886; Brazil, 1888. So Brazil, the second-largest black nation in the world, using our definitions of blackness.

But simultaneously, between 1884 and 1939, Brazil imported 4.0 million Europeans and another 185,000 Japanese in a conscious policy called Branqueamento, which is meant to whiten the country.

Mexico had a policy of whitening. Cuba had a policy of whitening, and those policies persisted well into the 20th century.

GROSS: But let me understand this more clearly. So in the countries that had this policy of whitening, and they brought in Europeans - you mean - can't exactly bring in Europeans and say okay, so now we want you to have sexual relationships with people of color so that your children will be whiter. I mean, like how, exactly, was that supposed to work?

Mr. GATES: Let's see: a little rum, a little heat, a little merengue.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GATES: You know, what's that the prescription for?

GROSS: Were they just bringing in men and not families?

Mr. GATES: Well, there were obviously more men that came, but they were trying to do two things: first of all, bring in when they could, white families, so that the white population, per se, would increase, and white people would marry white people. So the quote-unquote number of pure white people, as it were, would increase in relationship to the number of quote-unquote pure black people.

But they also presumed, because so many of these indentured immigrants would be men, that interracial sexual liaisons would ensue. And indeed they did. So that whitening was to be achieved in two ways: white on white, as it were - through white couples, white people marrying white people; and, as it were, a browning movement, when a series of racial gradations would be created through interracial sexuality.

GROSS: Now, you found that in a couple of countries, at least a couple of countries, in Latin America, that the census does not include race. And that may seem kind of liberating, like you're not defining yourself by race. But it turns out there was a downside to that, as well.

Mr. GATES: Absolutely. In Mexico, my hero, President Vicente, was part of a movement - now he's elected in 1829 - but he's part of a movement earlier on, so that by 1822, it is decided that no public record, no census, will ever record race, forever, in Mexico. And they all thought this was a liberal thing because if you don't have races, you can't have racism. That's how the argument went.

Well, there's a slight problem with that. If - because of historical reasons the people who are disproportionately discriminated against happen to be that group of people with dark skin, kinky hair and thick lips, how do you count them if you don't have a census category?

So the most vibrant political movements in both Peru and Mexico today, involving race, have to do with fighting for the right to have race reintroduced in the federal census. And in spite of the fact that just recently, two years ago, the Peruvian government apologized - did something unprecedented.

It apologized to its Afro descendants, as they're called there, for historical discrimination, didn't mention slavery, but it mentioned anti-black racism, and that's quite progressive. In spite of that, there is no indication that categories of black or brown, Negro or mulatto will be introduced on the census. And until that's done, political activists can't organize to argue for things like affirmative action or more equal opportunity because they have no statistics.

A great academic told me that he went to the government to complain about the lack of blacks in higher education, and he said that there were so few blacks in higher education because of historical racism, and he was told: we don't have racism because we don't have races. And if you can't count the race, then you can't have racism. And that is the pernicious argument that they're trying to fight with this movement to expand the categories on the federal census.

GROSS: So it didn't have legislated racism like we did in the United States, where we had, you know, segregation. But so it was a kind of ad hoc racism, or...?

Mr. GATES: Yeah, it was de facto rather than de jure. In Cuba, there weren't laws against blacks doing this, but there were social customs; which Fidel Castro - you can say what you want about the evils of communism and all the things that were wrong about the communist revolution in Cuba - but one of the things that many people, black people and many academics told me, that the Cuban revolution got right, was that it ended all these informal practices. Like social clubs, blacks couldn't go to the beaches; interracial marriage. And the same thing obtained throughout much of Latin America.

Abdias Nascimento - the Nelson Mandela of Brazil who just died, really a great man, at the age of 96 - I think the height of traveling around these countries and interviewing people was actually meeting him, because he had been my hero for so long.

He said to me that Jim Crow segregation did our people - the African-Americans - a favor because we had something to rail against. He said they never had a civil rights movement because they had no de jure segregation. They had no legal segregation. So it was like trying to combat a chimera, you know, that there was nothing that they could touch, could grasp to fight.

And people would say again, well, what are you talking about? You have - you work hard, you can make it. Show me the law that prevents you from making it. Where in fact, the overwhelming percent of the people living in the favelas are people of obvious African descent.

GROSS: The favelas are the slums?

Mr. GATES: Yeah, like "The City of God," we all know that movie. The favelas are the slums, and they're disproportionately black and brown.

(Break)

GROSS: You know, one of the things I find interesting, so much of your book is about the, you know, the color differentiations in Latin American countries and how they don't identify as having African ancestry, even though African ancestry is such an essential part of Latin America.

But, you know, when a Latin American comes to the United States, like they're just Latin American. You know, most - so many Americans can't even distinguish between what's the difference between Dominican and Mexican and Brazilian. Do you know? It's a brown person, and there's going to be discrimination based on that.

Mr. GATES: Absolutely. When - my favorite country to explore this question was the Dominican Republic. In the Dominican Republic - I love the people, I love merengue, I love the food, I love its great traditions. But in the Dominican Republic, I spent two weeks asking people who would definitely be called black in this country how they would describe themselves.

And to a woman or a man, they each described themselves as indio, indio, though overwhelmingly, the mitochondrial DNA of each - I think according to one scholar 84 percent of the country, the mitochondrial DNA, your mother's mother's mother's DNA goes straight back to Africa.

Now, they are a mixed people, and they are more mixed than their neighbors in Haiti because of the peculiarities of the history of slavery. They had a cattle-based economy, and their slaves came early on, and the roles in the cattle industry tended to make people more equal. So there was much more interbreeding.

But when I asked who's black, then, who's Negro, you know what they said? They said: Oh, the Haitians. The Haitians are the Negros. We don't have any of them here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GATES: I asked Juan Rodriguez(ph), one of the people I interviewed, a cultural anthropologist, when he found out that he was black. And he said -because he was very proud. He said I'm a black Dominican. This is a problem for our country.

So I said: Juan, why are you different? How do you know that you're black? When did you find that out? Did your parents teach you? He said: My parents? I found out when I went to New York.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GATES: He wants all the Dominicans to have to go to New York because they undergo this transformation of identification.

GROSS: So how do you think your skin color might have affected you if you were growing up, say, in Brazil?

Mr. GATES: Well, my father, God rest his soul, worked for 37 years in a paper mill in the daytime and was a janitor at the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company at night in the hills of West Virginia, Piedmont, West Virginia.

So I - judging from other people in my social class, which would have been working class, that I see today in each of these countries, we wouldn't be having this interview. I never would have gotten into Yale because I was part of the affirmative action generation.

The class of '66 at Yale had six black guys to graduate. The class that entered with me in September of 1969 had 96 black men and women. Was there a genetic blip in the race that all of a sudden there were 90 smart black people? Of course not.

You know, Barack Obama, would he have gotten into Columbia and Harvard Law School without affirmative action? I doubt it, you know, though I think he's a brilliant man. There were just strict racist quotas at historically white colleges on the number of us who could matriculate there. And generally you had to be a rich kid or the child of a doctor, lawyer or politician or something, and that would have excluded me - no matter how intelligent I may not may not be, or certainly would have excluded President Obama, given his class background.

So if you consider that and then drop us into Brazil or Peru or Haiti, no, I would not be a professor at Harvard, and I would not be making films for PBS, and I wouldn't have written any of the books that I've written.

Race was a tremendous obstacle and is a tremendous obstacle in each of these countries. And I would say fleeing blackness is a consistent theme that I saw. That the lighter you were - it's like we used to say, my father used to say, his generation, our generation: If you're white, you're all right, if you're black, get back, if you're brown, stick around.

And that simple little phrase obtains throughout each of these countries. And now, because of scholars - white, black and brown - insisting on retrieving the history of African culture in these countries; and because of David Eltis' trans-Atlantic slave trade database, and because of conscious policies starting to trickle down from various aspects of the governments in different - in these different societies, it's beginning to change. There's more of a black consciousness movement.

GROSS: So one of the series that you did for PBS was about genealogy. And you had several high-profile Americans do their genealogy, you know, through their DNA to see what really - what were their roots really. So you did it yourself, too. What did you learn about your own genetic background that surprised you most?

Mr. GATES: Well, for me, the most shocking thing, the most amazing thing, was my admixture. And your admixture, Terry, is your percentage of African ancestry, Native American ancestry or Asian ancestry and European ancestry. And Dr. Rick Kittles - a black geneticist who now teaches at the University of Illinois Medical School, Chicago Circle - revealed to the world that I, the director of the Du Bois Institute of African and African American Research, was half a white man.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GATES: That my admixture was almost exactly 50-50 African and European. It was quite an astonishing moment for me. I had no idea. And my family on both sides always said we had Native Americans. Every black American thinks that they have a tremendous amount of Native American descent. Very few African-Americans have any Native American descent. I had zero Native American ancestry, zero Native American DNA.

And the real stopper is that if we did the Y DNA, which only men have and you get from your father, if we tested the Y DNA of all the black men, say, in the NBA or all the black men in America, one in three of us, including me, one in three - actually about 35 percent, a little bit more than one in three - of us descend not from a black man at all but from a white man who impregnated a black woman under horrible conditions in slavery.

(Break)

GROSS: So finding out that your DNA was like 50 percent white and 50 percent black...

Prof. GATES: African.

GROSS: African.

Prof. GATES: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Did that change your identity in any way?

Prof. GATES: No, I thought it was cool. You know, I thought - you see, what I love about our use of the DNA in the PBS series is that it exposed the notions of racial purity. No black person that we have tested is 100 percent African, no matter how dark they are. I tested Don Cheadle and Chris Rock, who are darker and both make jokes about being dark. And one of the reasons - we have different criteria for selecting people to be in the series and one is phenotype.

I wanted medium brown black people, light-complected black people and darker black people, and these are just facts of biological life. Not one is 100 percent African. We have never tested a 100 percent African, African-American. So that means that no matter what the laws were in the daytime, Terry, when the lights came down, everybody was sleeping with everybody else.

Now, that - I don't mean to elide the horrendous tradition of brutality and rape and coercion that figure suggests. But also we found there were willing relationships. Morgan Freeman's ancestors, his great-grandfather was white, his great-grandmother was black. They had children during slavery, so you would just presume rape. But after 1870, they lived together. They couldn't get married in Mississippi. But they even died together. We found the gravestones, they were buried right next to each other. It's enormously complicated.

It's difficult to generalize, though generally we can say that the bulk of those interracial relationships were in slavery and could not possibly have been between two equals and no doubt reflected force or coercion.

GROSS: So I'm going to change the subject for a second, and bring up something you're probably like really tired of talking about, but we've never talked about it on the show - you and I have not talked about it. And I'm thinking of the July 2009 incident.

Prof. GATES: Oh, what happened then? I was filming. I was filming a new series. Is that what you're referring to?

GROSS: No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So, as everybody knows, you were coming home from a trip and realized you were locked out of your home, so your driver helped you break into your home so you could get in. A neighbor or a passerby reported it as breaking and entering. Sergeant James Crowley showed up to see what was up. He asked you to step outside. You refused and thus ensued a now-famous conflict to which President Obama intervened and brought you both for a beer summit with the president and the vice president. So a very, kind of famous incident that President Obama tried to make into a teachable moment.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. GATES: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: What did you get out of that? What's like the moral of the story for you?

Prof. GATES: Well, I was returning from filming Yo-Yo Ma's ancestry in China. So I'm pretty pumped up, also exhausted. I'd spent the night in New York. And someone had broke, tried to break into my house while I was in China. That wasn't reported. That's why the door was locked. I had my keys.

GROSS: Oh, I didn't know that part.

Prof. GATES: Yeah. And a man named Dris(ph), who's Moroccan, was driving me. And he's a friend. He's a big man. And I was calling - my house is owned by Harvard - so I was calling the real estate office. And then I said Dris, just put your shoulders against it and it'll fix the lock because the lock is jammed anyway. So he did, and this very nice lady was walking by. And then the story falls apart, because according to the police, there's one story; according to her, there's another story. But essentially, it's reported two black guys are breaking into this house.

And then this police officer shows up and asked me to step out on the porch and I said no, I didn't think that was a good idea.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. GATES: Just by his tone. And then you know all the details after that.

GROSS: So what was the moral of the story for you? What did you get out of all the different ways that the story played out, including the meeting with President Obama.

Prof. GATES: It's very interesting. My secretary of 16 years, Joanne Kendall, she was shocked. She told me that in spite of working for me for 16 years, of being in African-American Studies, she did not realize the depth of racism and hatred that could manifest itself. These were - she was fielding phone calls, just from lunatics. I mean people saying terrible things, that I should die, I shouldn't go here or there; my children, my family could be killed. But the day after the beer summit, all the phone calls and all the hate mail went away.

Now I don't know where those people went. But I know that what Barack Obama did was brilliant. Because it brought two people who were afraid of each other, me and Officer Crowley - it turns out, by the way, we did Officer Crowley's DNA.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. GATES: It turned out, Terry, that we did Officer Crowley's DNA and he and I are both descended from something called the Ui Neill haplotype. Eight percent of all the men in Ireland have the same identical Y DNA genetic signature, so Officer Crowley and I are distant cousins. And he and I have gotten to know each other and we have very friendly communication. And I can't speak for him, but I think that it was, our actions were defined by, you know, fear and tremendous amount of anxiety. And I hope that it would be a lesson for the police department in how to avoid making a similar kind of mistake. And I hope it would be a lesson for those people being questioned by the police, to be as cooperative as possible, because you're essentially powerless. You know, all you can do is be as respectful as you possibly can be.

But I also hope that what President Obama did helps us to understand that communication across racial lines, even at times of intense anxiety or animosity, is the ultimate solution. That it's better to sit two people down and let them talk to each other and let the whole country talk about it, which they did, than to allow us to go to our separate corners and continue to hate each other.

GROSS: Well, Henry Louis Gates, it's been great to talk with you again. Thank you so much.

Prof. GATES: Thank you. Terry. Thank you for having me on the program.

GROSS: Henry Louis Gates directs the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard. His new book is called "Black in Latin America.

You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org.

Coming up, Brendan Gleeson, who stars in the new film "The Guard," co-starred in "In Bruges" and played Mad-Eye Moody in three Harry Potter films.

This is FRESH AIR.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.